Wind-whipped wildfires raced through parts of Hawai’i on Wednesday, burning structures in historic Lahaina Town on the island of Maui, forcing evacuations and leading some to flee to the relative safety of the ocean, where they were rescued by the Coast Guard.
“Do NOT go to Lahaina Town,” the County of Maui tweeted, hours before all roads in and out of West Maui’s biggest community were closed to everyone except emergency personnel.
Fire was widespread in Lahaina, including on Front Street, an area of the town of roughly 13,000 that is popular with tourists, county spokesperson Mahina Martin said by phone early Wednesday. Traffic has been very heavy as people try to evacuate, and officials asked people who weren’t in an evacuation area to shelter in place to avoid adding to the traffic, she said. Photos posted by the county overnight showed a line of flames blazing across an intersection in Lahaina and flames leaping above buildings in the town, whose historic district is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The National Weather Service said Hurricane Dora, which was passing to the south of the island chain at a safe distance of 500 miles (805 kilometers), was partly to blame for gusts above 60 mph (97 kph) that knocked out power, rattled homes, and grounded firefighting helicopters. Dangerous fire conditions created by strong winds and low humidity were expected to last through Wednesday afternoon, the weather service said.
The Coast Guard on Tuesday responded to areas where people had fled into the ocean to escape the fire and smoky conditions, the county said in a statement. The Coast Guard tweeted that a crew rescued 12 people from the water off Lahaina.
Acting Governor Sylvia Luke issued an emergency proclamation on behalf of Governor Josh Green, who is traveling, and activated the Hawai’i National Guard to assist.
Officials were not aware of any deaths and knew of only one injury, a firefighter who was hospitalized in stable condition after inhaling smoke, Martin said. There’s no count available for the number of structures that have burned or the number of people who have evacuated, but Martin said there were four shelters open and that more than 1,000 people were at the largest.
“This is so unprecedented,” Martin said, noting that multiple districts were affected. An emergency in the night is terrifying, she said, and the darkness makes it hard to gauge the extent of the damage.
“Right now it is all-hands-on-deck and we are anxious for daybreak,” she said.
The fires weren’t only raging on Maui.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved a disaster declaration to provide assistance with a fire that threatened about 200 homes in and around Kohala Ranch, a small rural community on the Big Island, according to the Hawai’i Emergency Management Agency. When the request was made, the fire had burned more than 600 acres (243 hectares) and was uncontained.
Fire crews on Maui were battling multiple blazes concentrated in two areas: the tourist destination of West Maui and an inland, mountainous region. In West Maui, 911 service was not available and residents were directed to call the police department directly.
Because of the wind gusts, helicopters weren’t able to dump water on the fires or get aerial estimates of the fire sizes, and firefighters were encountering roads blocked by downed trees and power lines as they worked the inland fires, Martin said.
About 14,500 customers in Maui were without power early Wednesday, according to poweroutage.us.
“It’s definitely one of the more challenging days for our island given that it’s multiple fires, multiple evacuations in the different district areas,” Martin said.
Winds were recorded at 80 mph (129 kph) in inland Maui and one fire that was believed to be contained earlier Tuesday flared up hours later with the big winds, she added.
“The fire can be a mile or more from your house, but in a minute or two, it can be at your house,” Fire Assistant Chief Jeff Giesea said.
In the Kula area of Maui, at least two homes were destroyed in a fire that engulfed about 1.7 square miles (4.5 square kilometers), Maui Mayor Richard Bissen said. About 80 people were evacuated from 40 homes, he said.
“We’re trying to protect homes in the community,” Big Island Mayor Mitch Roth said of evacuating about 400 homes in four communities in the northern part of the island. As of Tuesday, the roof of one house caught on fire, he said.
Fires in Hawai’i are unlike many of those burning in the U.S. West. They tend to break out in large grasslands on the dry sides of the islands and are generally much smaller than mainland fires.
Fires were rare in Hawai’i and on other tropical islands before humans arrived, and native ecosystems evolved without them. This means great environmental damage can occur when fires erupt. For example, fires remove vegetation. When a fire is followed by heavy rainfall, the rain can carry loose soil into the ocean, where it can smother coral reefs.
A major fire on the Big Island in 2021 burned homes and forced thousands to evacuate.
The island of Oahu, where Honolulu is located, also was dealing with power outages, downed power lines and traffic problems, said Adam Weintraub, communication director for Hawai’i Emergency Management Agency.